Resources for... William & Mary
William & Mary W&M menu close William & Mary

geoLab teams take advantage of winter break, use extended time to create new projects

With the condensed fall semester ending before Thanksgiving—three weeks earlier than previous years—William & Mary students found themselves in an extended nine-week winter break. While many students spent this time relaxing with family and enjoying their lack of homework, the geoLab teams utilized these extra weeks to start new initiatives and make significant progress on an array of projects. 

Though working over break was not required, each of the four student-led geoLab teams (geoParsing, geoData, geoBoundaries and geoDev) spent countless hours researching new topics that related to their work and personal passions. GeoLab Director Olivia Hettinger ’23 said she was impressed by how each team was able to collaborate with their members and by the students’ drive to complete their projects. 

“I am really happy that we were able to take advantage of this uniquely extended break to help explore some new interests,” Hettinger said. “We tried to use this time to give students more reign to create projects that personally interested them… I am really impressed with the initiative all of our students took.”


The geoBoundaries team worked on four different projects over winter break, three of which were completely new. The CIESIN project, a collaboration between health researchers at Columbia University and the geoBoundaries team, began in 2018; over break, ten geoBoundaires members continued to help clean up their data and work on the project. 

The three new initiatives included the Raster Project, the Cartography Project, and a general boundary collection validation for the data set. The Raster Project was led by Sean Murphy ’22 and Maddy Mulder ’21, while the latter two were overseen by geoBoundaries Managing Director Sydney Fuhrig ’21. 

“I think it was good to start the projects over break, because it really gave people the opportunity to focus on that specifically, and they didn't have a million other responsibilities,” Fuhrig said. “Because it was over winter break, it was an optional thing. So these were the people that were really interested in it and actually wanted to do it.  And so I think that was really helpful, because Everyone was passionate and excited about it. Everybody is always excited for new opportunities to do new things.”

The Raster Project uses raster data—such as digital aerial photographs, imagery from satellites, digital pictures, and scanned maps—and shows how it can be used in collaboration with the geoBoundaries’ data. The work from the Raster Project will be used for the geoBoundaries’ new 4.0 website release.

The Cartography project encourages geoBoundaries members to make different types of maps using geoBoundaries’s data. Each member was allowed to choose a map topic based on their own personal passions and research interests. For example, Lydia Troup ’23 created a Story Map titled “How Fit are American Cities?'' that analyzed 100 American cities’ fitness index, while Carolina Rivera ’23 created a map detailing “COVID-19 & Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Virginia.”

“We let people go crazy and just explore the creative side of GIS a little bit more and show how our data can be used because we don't get to see that oftentimes,” Fuhrig said. “The cartography team is continuing next semester. And a person that worked on cartography over break, Dominic Fornatora ’23, is now leading this project. It's been really great to see people really get into leadership for the first time through these projects.”

Along with the Raster Project, the Cartography Project's maps will likely be featured in the geoBoundaries 4.0 release. Fuhrig shared how she hopes to make the website more visually appealing with these new projects and show their variety in data. 

“GeoBoundaries constantly amazes me,” Fuhrig said. “The people we have are brilliant. They're so dedicated, they come up with amazing ideas… I'm just amazed by what they come up with and the energy that they have for a project. Especially over winter break, the fact that they were volunteering their time to do this outside of the normal semester, and they were excited about it was just the best part. That's awesome.”


GeoParsing Team Lead Matt Crittenden ’21 described the winter break as a “season of transition for geoParsing.” With three of geoParsing’s most senior members graduating in December, three new students were promoted to leadership positions for each of the three sub-teams: the BRIGHT team, the INNOVATION team and the TRACAR team. 

“BRIGHT got a new assistant project manager; TRACAR, a new project manager and assistant project manager; INNOVATION, a new lead as well,” Crittenden said. “So, our foremost goal was to facilitate a successful transition.”

The BRIGHT team—which collaborates with the National GeoSpatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) to help collect satellite data—began tasking satellites to collect imagery in Bolivia and Ecuador, while also training two new members. The team hopes to produce two more reports with the NGA in the upcoming semester. 

The TRACAR team (Tracking Russian Activities in Central Africa) took advantage of winter break by brainstorming ways to elevate their research outputs. The group plans to create a new Twitter account and website, along with committing to support student’s independent research interests. 

The INNOVATION team’s leadership worked closely with the geoLab’s PhD students to produce a prototype for a Python Django-based web platform which will support geoParsing’s data collection efforts in the near future. This new platform will hopefully allow more members to work on data and policy analysis and publishing reports. 

“We faced the same challenges that many are facing: fatigue and uncertainty,” Crittenden said about working over the break. “Luckily, we’d already had a pass at it in the Fall and our new leadership are full of great ideas, so we’re confident heading into the new semester.”


The geoData team oversaw three projects over winter break, two of which were continuations from the prior semester and one being exclusively for winter break. The GEO and DHS projects, which geoData had already begun working on when the break began, will also span into the spring semester. 

The GEO Project collects and analyzes data regarding schools in various countries, and uploads it to a website—that is currently being built—in order for other researchers to have access to it. The DHS project is a partnership with the The Demographic and Health Surveys Program. The geoData DHS Team works on using granular demographic data to determine which nations immigrants to the United States will most likely come from and consequently,  where best to target US aid.

Laura Opsahl-Ong ’21, the geoAnalytics Project lead, believed the pandemic made doing work over the break easier. 

“I think that for the most part people enjoyed having something to do,” Opsahl-Ong said. “Since the pandemic has made us all used to doing work remotely and having zoom, doing the same because of everyone being at home from break didn't feel much different.”

GeoData’s third initiative, the COVID Project, was entirely completed during winter break and will, therefore, not be continued on during the spring semester. The COVID Project collected data regarding colleges (such as: college size, population density of the surrounding area, admissions rate) and then analyzed the data to discover what variables correlated the highest with the number of fall semester COVID-19 cases. 

The team discovered that the strongest correlated variables were the college's acceptance rate, the rate of COVID-19 in the surrounding area, and how conservative the school is.

“Our teams all made progress with their work,” Opsahl-Ong said. “We found some very interesting things with the COVID study. The people involved also used the data to make maps in ArcGIS Online, so they were able to build some new skills.”

For the spring semester, geoData hopes to keep gaining progress on the GEO and DHS projects and will also be working on their partnership with Nuru International. The partnership will involve analyzing satellite data of crops to determine the effectiveness of Nuru's interventions in Africa. The team also hopes to host COVID-sade sofical events, such as game nights over ZOOM and outdoor picnics.